Posted by: sbilingual | January 27, 2012

Supply and Demand Analysis of Patent Translation

As the internet shortens the intellectual distance between countries, worldwide patent information becomes easily accessible. In order to protect novel inventions, it is important to file a patent in patent offices and distribute patent information online. Since patents are granted for innovations, patents reflect economic growth of a country by illustrating creative activities and displaying the knowledge power of that particular country or region. World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a specialized agency of the United Nations dedicated to promoting an international intellectual property system, asserts that patent activities reflect up-to-date changes of worldwide industries, and as a consequence, good-quality information is essential in the understanding of current developments (WIPO, 2007h).

The diversity in the languages used in patent applications has boosted translation demand.

With the number of worldwide patent filings on the rise, there is a growing demand for patent translations in order for the patents to be filed in foreign patent systems for patent right protection and international visibility. The similarity between patents and translations is that both contribute to internationalization by the increasing number of worldwide patent filings and the increasing use of international patent systems (Tsai, 2007) such as Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). PCT is a ‘simpler, easier, and more cost-effective’ (WIPO, 2006b, p. 3) way by filing one international patent in one language. The language used in the application should be acceptable to the receiving office or else translations of the applicationdocuments should be provided.

Translating patent documents into one of the publication languages enhances the effectiveness of processing applications in both the international and national phases. The improved search environments enable patent Offices and International Searching Authorities to easily access patent documentations for patentability evaluation of the invention. Translations of patent application documents further foster visibility by disseminating information to a wider readership throughout the world. The published international application thus serves as both a legaldocument that specifies rights protected in the Contracting States, and an information source that introduces new technology (Tsai, 2008).

This paper introduces the patent translation profession from a supply and demand point of view. The volume and the distribution of translation works within patent offices as well as the recruitment of translators will be discussed. Information provided will focus on three patent offices of different scales: World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and Taiwan Intellectual Property Office (TIPO). The analysis of the patent translation profession opens an additional opportunity for potential translators with underlying stress on the importance of incorporating technical translation in academic institutions in order to train specialized translators to cope with the demand for technical translation and patent translation.

Volume of translation work

There are currently eight publication languages used in WIPO to publish international patent applications, which includes Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish. As of 2009, with the inclusion of Korean and Portuguese, a total 10 publication languages will be in use in WIPO to publish international patent applications (WIPO, 2008a, p. 1). According to PCT, patent applicants can file an application in any language as acceptable by the receiving office, and therefore, each receiving office would receive applications in various languages (WIPO, 2006b). The diversity in the languages used in patent applications has boosted translation demand.

In WIPO, requests for translation services in 2006 were 187,920 abstracts and 50,836 reports (WIPO, 2006a, p. 9). In 2007, there were 206,000 abstracts and 47,000 reports to be translated (WIPO, 2007d). In order for the technological information disclosed in international applications to become accessible in languages other than the ones in which the original documents were filed, translation is of great importance. Moreover, the translation of patent information also enhances the publicizing function of the patent system.

The largest receiving office on national level, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), receives an annual request of 4,000 to 5,000 translations, which are equivalent to around 15 million words per year (USPTO, 2006a). A large portion of the translation request is for Japanese and German, with translations from Japanese into English accounting for 70% of the demand. In terms of value, the estimated budget placed for translation services in USPTO was around US$1.6 million to US$2 million per year. The figure was derived from the most recent 5-year contract from 2007 to 2012, and the total price estimation for translation services is US$ 8 to $10 million over 5-year period (USPTO, 2006c).

The Translations Branch of USPTO provides written and oral translation services internally for patent examiners. Official statistics of USPTO show the number of written translations provided for patent examiners in 2007 was 7,104 documents, which was equivalent to approximately 22,814,832 words translated (USPTO, 2007b). The written materials to be translated could be from any of the foreign languages into English. The requests for oral translations in the same year were 5,996 documents, mostly from major European languages and Japanese into English (USPTO, 2007b).

In Taiwan Intellectual Property Office (TIPO), annual translation demands on average are around 44,400 documents (TIPO, 2005b). This figure includes translations for patent abstracts and patent titles. The estimated value of translation work was around US$0.7 million per annum (TIPO, 2005b). Irrespective of the fact that non-resident application filings accounted for 39.4% of the total application filings in 2007 (TIPO, 2007a), Chinese is the only language accepted by TIPO, and so a Chinese version of the application documents should be submitted for application. As a result, translation requests are mainly for English translations of Chinese documents for publication purposes.

Distribution of translation work

Outsourcing translation works to translation firms or freelance translators has become a common practice in the industry, regardless of subject field. If the demand is high, some organizations would set up an in-house translation section. In the area of patent translation, large-scale patent offices such as WIPO and U.S. Patent Office, to name a few, have an exclusive division that solely handles translation work. Nevertheless, the recent years have seen a gradual shift to outsourcing (WIPO, 2007h).

Distribution of Translation Work image

Figure 1 Distribution of Translation Work (WIPO, 2008b)

The International Bureau is the translation unit within WIPO, translating and publishing abstracts, titles, and texts of PCT international applications into English and French, and reports into English. Due to the high translation demand, the International Bureau has outsourced most of their translation work, while producing a smaller amount of translation internally. In 2006, 63% of 187,920 abstracts were translated by in-house translators within the International Bureau while 84% of 50,836 reports were translated by outside agencies (see Figure 1). In 2007, over half of the translation work was transferred to outside agencies. Among 206,000 abstracts, 60% was translated externally, and only 10% of 47,000 reports were translated internally (WIPO, 2007h).

The Translation Branch under the Scientific and Technical Information Center of the USPTO is the division that offers scientific and technical translation services to USPTO. Translation services are also offered and provided for publication purposes within USPTO, and to other government agencies and external specialists, on condition that the material to be translated is relevant to patent application cases. The material translated was more diversified, from articles, documents, to letters, as long as it is of relevance to the Patent Office. The material could be from any country wishing to file a patent in the U.S., and can be of any subject area (USPTO, 2006c).

Like WIPO, the Translation Branch has worked together with external agencies on a long-term contract basis. Apart from internal translation demands for patent examiners, the USPTO has outsourced approximately 15 million words of translation loads per year to external agencies. This workload was shared between 3 contracts before their contracts expired in 2006, which indicated respective load of 5 million words per annum (USPTO, 2006b). In 2007, a total of four translation service providers were contracted, three of which were existing suppliers who were re-awarded the contracts after re-bidding (USPTO, 2007a).

Distributing translation work to outsourcing agencies is also common in smaller-scale national patent offices such as TIPO. Since 1993, TIPO has cooperated with scientific and technical experts from various subject areas to translate patent documents from Chinese to English. Without having a specialized division for translation work, TIPO has outsourced all translation work on a yearly contract basis in 2005, and has been heavily reliant on outside agencies since then. However, the assignment of work is random, depending on the workload of TIPO (Tsai, 2008).

Outsourcing is considered as more cost-effective, efficient, and economical than having to support an internal independent translation division, and therefore has undoubtedly become the trend in the distribution of translation works. Due to budget and administrative concerns, patent offices would only benefit from better management and lower costs in both human and technical resources when they had procured qualified agents to produce quality works. The competency requirements to be met the highlight the importance of the procurement process for translation services.

Procurement of translation services

Before setting out to search for the right service provider, it is essential to list the criteria as the minimum requisite for satisfactory translation performance. Other considerations with regard to delivering translations with the expected quality include the availability of software and hardware resources to support the translation work, quality control methods, and time management. Different patent offices may have different concerns. Some are more inclined to hand over the task to large-scale translation agencies and grant them the right to follow-up assignments. Some prefer to have direct communication with and management of the translators, and thus commission work to several freelance translators. Defining and detailing the essential requirements right from the outset is thus the first filtration process of the procurement.


Translation activities in the WIPO are of a broader scope. Not only are the translators responsible for translating legal documents that were not directly related to patents, such as treaties, conference reports, working papers, promotional materials, official publications and so on, but also for providing text-related services as well. It was also the duty of the translators to work with the Secretariat in editing, revising, and correcting texts, responding to language-related questions from other divisions, and reviewing and developing linguistic policies. In addition, translators were also involved in the development of online terminology databases and the evaluation of adopting computer-assisted translation and voice recognition systems in the translation process (WIPO, 2001, pp. 168-169).

Publication Language % of filings (2009 estimate) Abstract translation into English Abstract translation into French Patentability Report Search Report (average) Total













































Table 1 Translation Costs in CHF (WIPO, 2007c, p. 3)

As regulated in Rule 48.3 (c) of Regulations under the Patent Cooperation Treaty, the title, abstract and any relevant texts of the invention should be published both in English and in any other language accepted by the Receiving Office. It is thus the responsibility of the International Bureau to prepare translations of the title and abstract of the application, as well as the international search report into English. Table 1 provides an estimation of translation costs for 2009, in particular the costs of translation of abstracts into the core languages of the WIPO, English and French. It is estimated that the total translation cost for Chinese as a publication language in 2009 is CHF 168.00 per PCT international application (WIPO, 2007c).

In coping with the significantly increasing demand for technical language capability, WIPO has built up competencies using the existing staff and contracted workforce (WIPO, 2007g, pp. 27-28). Consequently, translations of the title, abstract, and relevant texts, as well as translations of WIPO Official publications, are being outsourced to external contractors.

The increasing reliance on outsourcing translation workload by the International Bureau started in 2004. Before then, there were around 22 translators working into six publication languages, two of which were working into Chinese. Some of the translation work was also shared between freelance translators and outside agencies. Translation workload was increased as a result of the continuous PCT reform in WIPO since 2000. An additional demand for English translations of the international preliminary report on patentability for every international application gave rise to the heavy reliance on outsourcing as a means of absorbing the considerable workload (WIPO, 2007c, p. 2).

Outsourcing activities were administered and monitored by the Secretariat of the WIPO based on an open international tender for translation services in the publication languages (WIPO, 2007b, p. 4). Regardless of the complexities and the fact that outsourcing would not necessarily cut down cost in the short-term, the Secretariat was still positive in the flexibility that outsourcing brings to cope with workload fluctuations without having to readjust the workforce (ibid.). Thereby, the International Bureau has strictly limited the recruitment of additional staff to handle increases in the translation workload, but has significantly increased the amount of financial resources to translation (WIPO, 2007c, p. 2).

In 2006, the financial resources placed for the Language Service unit was CHF 6,122,000 (WIPO, 2005). The unit cost of production for translation services was CHF 262,000, which accounted for 40% of the PCT system budget, of which CHF 125,000 were allocated for internal translation service and CHF 137,000 were for outsourced translation activities. The 95 staffs housed in the PCT translation service processed approximately 118,390 abstract translations and 8,134 report translations in 2006.

The 5-year projected expenditure of the International Bureau provided a clearer picture of the financial resources allocated to in-house translations and outsourced translations (see Table 2). On average, the ratio of outsourced translations over in-house translations was 4.6:1. The indication is that 4.6 translation projects are outsourced for every translation completed within the International Bureau.







Examinations & Publications

CHF 136,000

CHF 557,000

CHF 693,000

CHF 829,000

CHF 829,000

Outsourced translations

CHF 1,585,000

CHF 2,272,000

CHF 2,958,000

CHF 3,677,000

CHF 4,344,000

In-house translations

CHF 398,000

CHF 398,000

CHF 597,800

CHF 796,000

CHF 996,000

Table 2 Projected expenditure1 for the International Bureau (WIPO, 2007a)

Along with the growing capacity of outsourced translation comes the demand for management skills in handling contracts and a quality assurance mechanism for outsourced work. The International Bureau has a comparable amount of translations produced internally and externally, and is devising control measures to ensure the quality of outsourced translations. Nevertheless, the workforce for managing outsourcing contracts and controlling translation quality has been appropriately allocated without having to increase the number of staff in the translation section (WIPO, 2007c, p. 2).


Translation requests in the USPTO include both ‘patent literature’ and ‘non-patent literature’. Patent literature refers to documents that are of great relevance to patents, such as patents, utility models, published patent applications, abstracts, and so forth. Non-patent literature, though only accounts for 10% of the total volume, embraces a wider range, from scientific and technical articles, legal documents, reports, to letters. Most of the material to be translated are described as ‘frequently difficult linguistically and in content’ by the USPTO (USPTO, 2006c). As the work flow is controlled by patent examiners, there are no seasonal variations in the amount of work assigned to respective contractors.

The procurement of translation service is for all languages other than English, mostly Japanese and German, with Japanese documents being responsible for 70% of the total volume (USPTO, 2006b). Most of the work relates to translations into English (to be more precise, ‘Standard American English’ according to USPTO terminology), although occasional requests into other foreign languages still occur. Venders who are capable of providing translation service for only one or two languages, regardless of their share in the total volume, would not stand a good chance to succeed, as the requirements of the USPTO would not be fulfilled.

This explains why the USPTO has targeted the bidding to businesses instead of individuals. First, it is more manageable to interact with one contact than hundreds and thousands of translators, each working on different language pairs. Second, translation agencies usually have a database of translators working in various language combinations. In the case of urgent need for rare languages, translator agencies would need less effort to readily access and locate the right talent. Finally, with the built-in quality control system within the agency, translation quality is checked before delivery.

With the purpose to receive ‘accurate, high-quality translations,’ the USPTO has positioned the procurement as ‘high-level solicitation’ (USPTO, 2006c). Bidders were invited to ‘demonstrate their competency in fulfilling the requirements of the USPTO with a Capability Statement (USPTO, 2006b). Information regarding the size, scope, and specific features of the business should be detailed. The evaluation of vendors focused on four aspects: the source and qualification of translators, quality control measures, past experience and performance, and pricing.

To bid on this job, the bidder should describe the education, experience, and source of proposed translators for this contract; quality control measures used to monitor and examine translation quality; relevant experience in patent translation or legal translation; and price estimation. In the pre-proposal submission phase, the bidders should submit cost/word estimates based on 1000 words for each language, turnaround times, and should include all applicable costs. The three types of delivery are ‘rush,’ ‘standard,’ and ‘economy.’ The definition of rush refers to 1~2 days, standard means 1~3 days, and economy would be 2~4 days (USPTO, 2006b).

The pre-proposal submission phase is the first round of the procurement process. The USPTO evaluates the responses relating to the four areas received from the bidders and down-selects five suppliers. In the second round, the selected 5 bidders should provide additional information and fill in a Request for Proposal. Adjustments in pricing or other matters can be made in Request for Proposal. Ultimate decisions are determined by the probability of fulfilling the requests at the best value offered (USPTO, 2006b).


In TIPO, translation services are required for patent documents, including patents, utility models, published patent applications, abstracts, and titles. A large proportion of work relates to Chinese to English translations of patent abstracts and patent titles. Due to an annual demand of 44,400 documents (TIPO, 2005a) to be translated, TIPO outsourced translation work in 2005. The procurement replaced a team of scholars and experts that had been recruited from various fields to cope with translation requests in patent documents since 1993. The procurement was set for a base period of 2 years from 2005 to 2007, with a possible one-year extension (TIPO, 2005b).

The assignment of the type of translation work will be decided in terms of the number of granted patents during that period. Once the work has been assigned, the translator is provided with full documentation of the patents that need to be translated. The entire patent documentation includes “patents for inventions, plant patents, design patents, inventors’ certificates, utility models, patents of addition, inventors’ certificates of addition, utility certificates of addition, and published applications” (WIPO, 1998). The same information can be found in TIPO’s online database, and is freely accessible to all. Once completed, the translation is proofread by proofreaders and published online.

Unlike the USPTO, the procurement was open for all, inviting small businesses, as well as individuals to bid. However, conditions were stipulated with regards to the education level and working experience of the potential bidders. Bidders should have at least a college degree, and should have at least two years of working experience in a patent-related field. In the pre-proposal submission phase, bidders should submit a personal profile stating education level, previous working experiences, and a sample translation of a patent abstract (TIPO, 2005b). Timeframe and quotations for translation work are unnecessary as the deadline of each assignment is set by TIPO and the price is fixed, regardless of the word count.

Potential bidders are requested to choose a specific field classified under the International Patent Classification system, and provide sample translations of patent abstracts accordingly. Bidders should also list areas of interest in accordance with translation competency. Each sample translation is assessed by two evaluators, and in the case of doffering opinions, a third evaluator is invited. The evaluation of bidders depends on qualification review and translation work review. Ultimate decisions are made by the supplier evaluation team. In 2005, approximately 60 contracts were awarded (cf. Tsai, 2008).

Recruitment of in-house translators

Most of the patent offices have recruited in-house translators, or have redeployed existing staff with language competencies to deal with translation requests. The responsibilities of in-house translators were not necessarily based on translating documents, but were more diversified, mostly having to do with managing outsourced contracts and controlling the quality of the translations. Occasionally, in-house translators would need to take on urgent translation requests within the office, or provide oral interpreting instead of working solely on written translations.


Recruitment activity in WIPO is centralized with detailed processes and authority levels. At the peak of the recruitment activity in 2001 and 2002, WIPO advertised over 150 positions and attracted 7,000 applications (WIPO, 2007g, p. 39). Thanks to information technology, low staff turnover rate, and the distribution of workload to outside agencies and short-term contractors, staff recruitment was reduced to approximately 50 positions in 2007 (WIPO, 2007e, p. 67). A WIPO report in 2007 shows a 15% to 30% of growth in demand for services in the language sector, but only one additional position was created, which reflects the increasing reliance on outsourced services for translation (WIPO, 2007f, p. 14).

According to an internal review report, as at January 2007, there were a total of 1,249 staff employed in WIPO, of which 37.5% were full time staff working in the Administration of the PCT system. As compared with a Swiss public sector benchmark, WIPO has a low staff turnover level, representing a high level of staff retention. In 2006, the staff turnover rate at WIPO was 2.6% while the Swiss public sector experienced 7.5% to 10% of staff turnover (WIPO, 2007g, p. 9). The impact of the long staff tenure in WIPO, as indicated in the final review report, increased costs in human resources yet the performance and competence of the staff were not entirely sufficient to meet the standard.

A list of required skills and competencies for Professional level staff was generated from internal interviews within the WIPO with the middle management in 2007. These skills and competencies include management skills, knowledge of WIPO and UN, higher university degree, IP knowledge, language skills, professional experience, communication and diplomatic skills, and IT skills. By and large, the middle management considers language skills the competency that was insufficient in P level staff (cf. WIPO, 2007g).

Looking at the language skills of WIPO staff at Professional level and General Services level, as presented in Figure 2, more G level staff had proper language skills than P level staff. However, competencies in this area are more focused on English-language competency, especially for G level staff. When it comes to technical language support, WIPO is well equipped to meet the demands for European technical languages. For non-European technical languages, WIPO has also redeployed existing staff in conjunction with outsourcing and contracting work. (WIPO, 2007g, pp. 27-28).

Language Skills of P and G staff at WIPO image

Figure 2 Language Skills of P and G staff at WIPO (WIPO, 2007g, p. 30)

The fact that not all staff fulfill the competencies and skills required in WIPO or deliver a satisfactory performance added staff frustrations over a lack of on-the-job achievement and opportunities for promotion. Due to the current system that discourages disciplinary actions, it was reported that no full-time staff was dismissed since 2002 (WIPO, 2007g, p. 9). Although the introduction of information technology and outsourcing activities improve efficiencies and performance for translation and related services, it is still recommended to extend language training for existing WIPO staff in addition to outsourcing, for the need for technical support in languages cannot be completely replaced (WIPO, 2007g, p. 28).

The addition of a publication language increases translation load for both internal staff and external contractors. Considerations of criteria for additional publication languages include the number of both native and non-native speakers of the language, the number of States that use the language as an official language, the number of PCT applications filed in that language, the number of domestic applications made in that language, and whether the language is supported by at least one PCT International Authority (WIPO, 2008a, p. 4). Chinese for example, is the language spoken by most people in the world, and is used in China and Taiwan as the official language. The number of PCT patents filed with and accepted by the International Authority in 2007 was 4,887.

Increasing reliance on translated rather than original reports would have consequential effects in the national phase, especially if the quality of translation were not carefully monitored. In order to strike a balance between cost-effectiveness and quality in translation and revision of documents, productivity standards have been developed, and continue to be met. According to the productivity standards of WIPO, each in-house translator would be expected to translate 1,500 words of general text, or 1,000 words of legal text a day. Translations and edited or proofread documents represented an output of 30,000 standard pages of text. With a streamlined and formalized translation procedure for translation, an 8% of efficiency gain was achieved in 2006 (WIPO, 2007e).

The cost of outsourced translations for the International Bureau is largely dependent on the number of applications involved and covered by the international filing fee. In 2006, the ratio of the number of PCT applications to PCT staff and ouside translators was 1:606. As compared to 2005, the translation workload increased by 20% (WIPO, 2007e). While most of the workload was outsourced to experienced translators, it is necessary to keep at least a minimum capacity within the International Bureau for quality control and urgent needs. As a result, translation capacity in each publication language for abstracts, search reports, and written opinions has been maintained. As of 2007, 30 translators were contracted on Special Service Agreements in WIPO through competition. Other in-house positions include translator reviser, senior translator, assistant translator, and translation assistant (cf. WIPO, 2007g).


In-house translators within the USPTO are responsible for quality control of outsourced translations and coping with urgent requests within the office. In-house translators were also in charge of managing contracts, which include assigning works to translation service suppliers, tracing the completion of translation, liaising between the translation service provider and quality control team, and evaluating the services of the provider. Recruitment activities for in-house translators are infrequent, but positions were mostly filled by U.S. citizens with specific foreign language competencies.


While translations of abstracts and titles were produced by contracted translators, TIPO has started recruiting native speakers of English in 2007 to draft English documents, proofread, and revise English translations. This short-term contract is for a base period of two years from 2007 to 2009, with three months’ trial period. According to the contract, staff recruited on short-term contract should work 8 hours a day. Their responsibilities include drafting, translating, and revising English documents. A total budget of US$114,752 has been put aside for this recruitment (TIPO, 2007b).

Concluding remarks

Patent translation bridges linguistic barriers for worldwide readers, and constant updates of newly published patent information online satisfy the need of a larger group of people with different languages and backgrounds. Due to the complexity and technical features of patent translation, academic training in this area is rare, and this is often the area that instructors are reluctant to handle. However, the increasing demand brings forth job opportunities. Training specifically designed for patent translation provides translators with background knowledge and translation competency in patent documentation and prepares patent translators for patent offices and legal firms.

The need to train students for the job market has been suggested by Bamberger in as early as the 1960s. During the period when the translation demand soared in the USPTO, Bamberger indicated that “these critical times make it mandatory for the colleges to do everything in their power to promote international exchange of scientific and technical as well as cultural information by making translators available to industry, government and scientific institutions” (1962, p. 36). Academic participation in meeting the needs of the industry enhances the importance of collaboration between industry and university in addition to integrating theory and practice.

By analyzing the patent translation profession from a supply and demand perspective, it is expected that more competent translators can be trained for patent offices, legal firms, and translation agencies. In addition, more research is encouraged to contribute to the literature of technical translation and translation studies as a whole.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: